The Independent London Newspaper
26th April 2019

ILLTYD HARRINGTON: No man is an island

    US aid worker Peter Kassig

    The butchering of US aid worker Peter Kassig by Isis was shown in a video posted online

    Published: 2 December, 2014

    THEY invited the world, and a lot of the world watched their butchering of Peter Kassig via the internet. His crime was rushing to the aid of victims of the ruthless bloodbath, which has been ignored by the world powers, particularly in Syria. 

    Don’t even try to understand the logic of his executioners. Although interest in this slaying will last for only a day or two, it focuses attention on what is a playground of power politics, and the indifference of the people who wage it. Videos of this particular atrocity are selling briskly in the US. 

    Meanwhile the usual moral outrage comes out of our leaders’ platitudinous mouths. We have made some effective attacks on terrorism but let us not forget what a shrapnel bomb can do – very good at slicing off heads and limbs with razor-sharp precision. It’s very hard for the US to occupy the moral high ground when American prisons have huge bloated populations and keep people on death row for 10 years on occasion before they enter the death chamber. 

    Sadly the lust for blood continues to bubble beneath the kindest public faces. They, like the Islamic State, consider killing is a deterrent and a propaganda weapon. But it never seems to solve deep problems. The media feed this morbid and punitive culture.

    Frances Larson’s Severed is there­fore a timely reminder. Who would believe now – when television is painting a rosy picture of the 19th century – that Dickens and Thackeray paid top price for window seats to watch the last public executions outside Newgate? Vying with them were the surgeons, either stealing or buying fresh corpses from the hangman. 

    Of course we have advanced. It is, after all, 2014. We were appalled by the slaughterhouse disposal Kassig, the former GI, but we are not shocked by the weekly practice in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where beheadings are part of a normal Friday morning in Mecca.  

    In Tudor times, Henry VIII knew where in Europe to hire the most effective executioners. Nearly 100,000 people would attend hangings at Tyburn near Marble Arch. A good day out. 

    There were a few executions similar to this in 2004 and 2006 in the Middle East, but 16 million Americans insisted on watching videos of the gruesome events. Now you can actually see a man having his head cut off from the comfort of your own home. 

    It seems to me that the spirit of Dickens’s Madame Defarge, who hogged the best place near the guillotine and knitted, never dies. 

    And so we come back to Kassig. The personal tragedy was so evident from his father and mother’s expressions. Thank God that most of us still believe in the sanctity of human life. Kassig was a man who refused to accept the ideology of the American war machine. He knew people needed water, food and warmth. It still leaves a whole mass of people who are losing their values. 

    I was a student in west Wales when I met and liked a murderer. He lived with his uncle and aunt on their smallholding. He mixed with us college boys; played rugby, drank and chased the local girls. One night he told us his aunt and uncle had gone on a trip to London. Some weeks later they dug them up in a field on the farm. Later, one morning, he was hanged in Swansea jail. We were all scarred by these events. 

    John Donne put it in a nutshell: No man is an island entire of itself… And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.  

    And so it is with Peter Kassig.

    Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found, by Frances Larson (Granta, £20).